The Islamic State’s Origins in Iraq

The United States’ and Britain’s bipolar policies in Iraq directly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.

| November 2015

  • Abdel Bari Atwan asserts that the Western policies of intervention and supporting radical groups for short-term military and political advantage have directly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.
    Photo by Fotolia/kaninstudio
  • In “Islamic State,” Abdel Bari Atwan draws on his unrivaled knowledge of the global jihadi movement and Middle Eastern geopolitics to reveal the origins and modus operandi of Islamic State.
    Cover courtesy University of California Press

Based on extensive field research and exclusive interviews with IS insiders, Islamic State (The University of California Press, 2015) by Abdel Bari Atwan outlines the group's leadership structure, as well as its strategies, tactics, and diverse methods of recruitment. Atwan explores the roots of the Islamic State with Western destabilization efforts in the Middle East and the Islamic State’s ideological foundation in Wahhabism – an ideology shared by Western-backed Saudi Arabia. Atwan demonstrates that shadowy figures within the Saudi government such as former head of General Intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan proved to be one of the greatest sources of early financing for the Islamic State.

The following excerpt from Chapter 2, “The Origins – Part One: Iraq,” focuses on the United States Government’s longtime support and then betrayal of Saddam Hussein, leading to the power vacuum that helped set the stage for the rise of the Islamic State.

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In April 2003, the newspaper I was editing, al-Quds al-Arabi, received a fax from Saddam Hussein, who was then in hiding. The United States believed that the Second Gulf War was over. Saddam knew that the real war would be one of insurgency, and that it was about to begin. He urged the Iraqi people to rise up against the American occupiers. But something else struck me as very significant at the time—this faxed message (and others we received until the beginning of June) was full of Qur’anic quotations and references, as well as jihadist rhetoric. Saddam’s intuition had told him that political, radical Islam would provide the cohesion necessary for the insurgency to be effective.

At this moment the seed that would eventually produce Islamic State was planted. Its germination, however, had begun years before.

Until 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had enjoyed a robust economy that provided its people with education and health-care systems that were envied throughout the region. It was no democracy, however, and the dictator and the ruling Ba‘ath party had ruthless ways of maintaining control. Even so, Kurds, Shi‘a, and Sunnis lived relatively harmoniously, side by side; mixed marriages were commonplace.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, America tried to engineer a regime change. Saddam was not ousted by an indigenous uprising or coup, as the West had expected, and the international community—led by the United States—proceeded to inflict what was, in effect, collective punishment on the whole nation. During the 1991 First Gulf War, 200,000 Iraqis lost their lives. Then, in April 1991, UN Resolution 687 imposed an almost total embargo on goods entering or leaving the country. These measures were to prove the most severe of the twentieth century. As Luiz Martinez points out in The Violence of Petro-Dollar Regimes, “Not even the Treaty of Versailles went as far. Certainly, the victors of World War amputated German territory, forced the vanquished to pay reparations, bridled its military power, but nothing prevented Germany from re-establishing normal trade relations and rebuilding its infrastructure.”

The embargo included materials necessary to provide clean water and electricity; the UN insisted that even basic medication and foodstuffs should be blocked, on the basis that they could be used to manufacture chemical weapons. Half a million children under the age of five were among the 1.7 million Iraqis who lost their lives as a direct result of sanctions, which endured, in one form or another, until the US-led invasion of 2003, which would itself claim a further 1.4 million Iraqi lives. In addition, the United States and UK continued to bomb Iraq between 1999 and 2001, in response to violations of air space and anti-aircraft fire from Saddam Hussein’s forces.

Saddam Hussein himself, hitherto a defiantly secular leader, realized that Islam could become a rallying cry against the West. At the height of sanctions he launched a Return to Faith Campaign, supervised by his deputy, Izzat al-Douri. Reversing his former stance, this made Islam not only part of the national identity (and his own personality cult) but also firmly linked it to international politics, the region’s rising tide of anti-Western sentiment, and, crucially, military prowess.

In 2001, Saddam inaugurated the astonishing Mother of All Battles mosque, the latest in a string of enormous religious edifices. It boasted eight minarets, all of them in the shape of weapons: four represented the barrels of AK-47 assault rifles; the remainder, Scud missiles. The mosque also housed a dramatic and alarming artifact: the Qur’an written out by hand in three pints of Saddam’s own blood, which had been extracted by his doctor over a period of two years.

Political Islam was not new. It had existed in Iraq since the 1940s. In that decade, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood called the Islamic Brotherhood Society was formed under the leadership of Sheikh Mohammad Mahmoud al-Sawwaf and Sheikh Amjad al-Zahawi. Its members became engaged mostly in social welfare work and outreach. In 1960, the more overtly political Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) was established. In 1968 the Ba‘ath party seized power, with Saddam Hussein at its head, imposing a mixture of Arab-centered socialism and Arab nationalism. Muslim Brotherhood and IIP members were persecuted; those who did not flee the country were arrested and, in some cases, executed.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Saddam’s viewpoint changed. He realized that, with the decline of pan-Arabism, political Islam was emerging as a new, radical, unifying force across the region. As the threat of a further US invasion loomed, Saddam saw in Islam a key to the formation of a cohesive resistance. Clerics went on the public payroll; he ordered his army commanders to become practicing Muslims.

Now Saddam tolerated the presence of a small jihadist enclave near the border with Iran. Controlled by the movement Ansar al-Islam (Helpers of Islam), it imposed Sharia law on towns and villages under its control. Unbeknown to Saddam, al Qaeda had sent some of its own operatives into this enclave. They were instructed to make valuable connections with the newly Islamized army commanders from Saddam’s brigades. Following Saddam’s fall from power, these regular Iraqi Army personnel would become absolutely crucial to the success of the insurgency and, later, the Islamic State. They brought to the table real experience of the front line (having fought a bitter seven-year war with Iran, followed three years later by the First Gulf War). They also offered practical and strategic expertise that would later be exported to other al Qaeda branches, first in Afghanistan and then in Syria.



Saddam Hussein’s Iraq

Until the end of the 1980s, Washington had maintained largely cordial relations with Baghdad. The two countries were united in their concerns about the burgeoning strength of the Islamic Republic that had taken power in Iran following the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah. In September 1980, the United States backed Saddam in all-out war against Iran. The war would last nearly eight years, cost a million Iraqi lives, and put the country $100 billion in debt.

Saddam was undeniably a ruthless dictator. His worst atrocities were committed in the 1980s; they included the murder of more than 180,000 Kurds in a campaign code-named al-Arfal. Saddam used chemical weapons in his attacks on forty Kurdish towns and villages, including an infamous attack on Halabja in 1988, but neither the United States nor the UK took him to task for these genocidal crimes against humanity. Instead, the United States doubled its financial aid to the country that year, and the UK’s Export Credits Guarantee Department underwrote a loan worth $300 million in today’s money. Saddam was an indispensable ally in the region’s balance of power, particularly in relation to Iran.

When the war with Iran ended in August 1988, Iraq was financially and physically ruined. Paradoxically, Saddam and his army had become stronger, more experienced, and finely tuned. The United States started to reflect that a highly militarized Iraq under the unpredictable Saddam could threaten America’s regional interests. While not yet confronting him, Washington was recalibrating its perception of Saddam, finding in him not an ally but a monster of its own creation, in possession of chemical weapons and harboring nuclear ambitions. This posed an enormous threat to the security and regional military supremacy of Israel.

Following the devastating war with Iran, Iraq desperately needed its oil revenues to repair its infrastructure and facilitate economic recovery. Iraq possesses the third largest oil reserves in the Middle East (after Saudi Arabia and Iran), with 300 billion barrels. Oil prices, however, were tumbling, owing to over-supply from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Kuwait. (It is possible to infer a conspiracy here, since the United States was intent on weakening Saddam’s Iraq.) The final straw came when Iraq suspected Kuwait of using new slant-drilling technology to take oil from Iraqi oil fields. Considering Kuwait to be historically part of Iraq (the British had artificially divided the two in 1922) and requiring easy access to the sea for shipping, Saddam began to weigh up the possibility of annexing the tiny kingdom. At this point he decided to consult his “allies,” sending a diplomatic delegation to meet the US ambassador in Baghdad, April Glasbie. Glasbie informed them that the United States would “take no position” on border disputes. Saddam took this as a green light and invaded in August 1990.

The arrival of half a million US troops in Saudi Arabia just weeks later therefore came as somewhat of a surprise. President George Bush, urged on by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, rebuffed all calls for a diplomatic solution—from Congress, from the international community, and from Iraq itself— and launched Operation Desert Storm on January 16, 1991. Right at the beginning a ferocious aerial bombardment destroyed what was left of Iraq’s infrastructure; this was followed by a ground war in late February, forcing a humiliating Iraqi retreat from Kuwait and sowing the seeds of enduring hatred for America in many Iraqi hearts. That hatred was intensified by the introduction of devastating sanctions for the next twelve years, the impact of which is recorded above.

Despite the virtual destruction of Iraq, Saddam remained firmly in control. There was no hoped-for coup or revolution. The United States and UK were more determined than ever to effect regime change in Baghdad. Saddam had crossed red lines where Israel was concerned, launching missiles in its direction during the First Gulf War and agitating on the international stage in support of the Palestinians during the Second Intifada, which erupted in September 2000. He backed up this verbal support with action, giving $1 billion in food and medical aid to Palestine and $10,000 to the families of each martyr. He also (somewhat hyperbolically) threatened to organize and train a seven-million-strong Jerusalem Liberation Army to fight alongside the Palestinians.

Perhaps what finally tipped the balance and galvanized the West into an invasion was Saddam’s use of oil as a potent political weapon against Israel. In April 2002, he announced that Iraq would cease all oil exports, “for a period of thirty days or until the Zionist entity’s armed forces have unconditionally withdrawn.” At that time, despite the enmity that ensued following the First Gulf War, 40 percent of Iraq’s two million barrels per day was being exported to the United States.

The Removal of Saddam Hussein

In the period leading up to the Second Gulf War, fantastic claims were made that Saddam Hussein was encouraging al Qaeda to enter the country to help him fight the Americans. The speculation was based on Saddam’s Return to Faith Campaign, his politicization of Islam, and the fact he tolerated the emirate run by Ansar al-Islam in Northern Iraq. Some even suggested that he was in cahoots with bin Laden. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In separate interviews in 1996 and 2000, bin Laden and Saddam Hussein both told me how vigorously they disliked each other. While it is true that there were some al Qaeda operatives in Iraq from 2001 onward, they were there without Saddam’s knowledge.

Yet the allies had two cards they could play to gain international assent for an invasion: Saddam’s alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and his supposed involvement with al Qaeda (especially in the aftermath of 9/11).

As we now know, there were no WMDs; they had all been destroyed or degraded after the First Gulf War or during the sanctions era. Successive visits through the 1990s by the specially constituted UNSCOM—which the Security Council charged with locating and dismantling Saddam’s biological and chemical weapons—were unable to find anything. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also dispatched inspections teams throughout the decade, with a similar lack of results. Nevertheless, the UN’s chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, headed several teams searching for Iraq’s elusive WMDs in the run-up to the invasion in March 2003. Hans Blix told the UK’s Iraq Inquiry in 2010 that it was his “firm view” that the war against Iraq was unfounded and “illegal.”

In 2004, I shared a debating platform in Europe with a former high-ranking US general, who had been directly involved in strategic planning for the Second Gulf War. He told me that there had been two schools of thought within the Bush administration: one wanted to allow the UN weapons inspectors to be allowed to finish their job, the other wanted to go for an immediate, all-out invasion. The former had lost, the general informed me, because if it were proved (and it looked increasingly likely that it would be) that Saddam had no WMDs, sanctions would have to be lifted immediately and Saddam would emerge from the whole experience as a great hero of the Arab world.

Having discarded a plan whereby troops would swiftly occupy Baghdad while a team of commandos would locate and assassinate Saddam and his immediate entourage, the US strategists decided instead to occupy Iraq, dismantle its army and state institutions, and let it start from scratch—according to the American model of democracy and with a new constitution. Naturally, any new regime would also have to be willing to share the nation’s oil with its Western “partners” after “liberation.”

The required number of votes in favor of a military intervention was not achieved in the UN Security Council. (Only Spain and Bulgaria voted with the UK and United States.) Regardless of that fact, Washington decided to go ahead and invade. London agreed.

The Second Gulf War opened with Operation Shock and Awe on March 19, 2003. This was a third attempt at regime change in oil-rich Iraq and, once again, the entire country was to pay for it.

As before, a devastating air strike was followed by a ground invasion and the “coalition of the willing” troops met with surprisingly little resistance—final proof of just how little threat Saddam Hussein really did present to the world. Baghdad fell on April 9, and, on May 1, George W. Bush (son of George H.W. Bush, who had presided over the first assault on Iraq) declared the “end of major hostilities.”

All the elements that would later form the insurgency lay low to begin with. They knew that taking on the world’s most sophisticated and powerful military power was a non-starter. The largest contingents would be Ba‘ath party members, officers and troops from Saddam‘s defeated armies, Salafi-jihadists—including Kurdish groups in the north—and, increasingly, al Qaeda.

Saddam had already made plans for an insurgency. In the months before the invasion he had sent messengers to buy small parcels of land from Sunni farmers. Under cover of darkness, soldiers would bury arms and money for later use by the resistance.


Reprinted with permission from Islamic State, written by Abdel Bari Atwan and published by The University of California Press, 2015.




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